Alys Conran : Pigeon2016 : Parthian
It is important to state from the start that Pigeon is a great, enthralling book. I read it, put it down and then picked it up and re-read it again a few days later.
In between the two readings I was fortunate to have the chance to talk to the author, Alys Conran. I met her for an hour in Bangor, where she is a lecturer in creative writing, to talk about how the book came about.
Pigeon is Conran's debut novel, although her short stories have been recognised with places in the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize. She has also read her fiction and poetry at The Hay Festival and on Radio Four, and had her work published in a number of literary magazines.
The new book is Welsh in its very essence, with the brooding atmosphere of the post-industrial slate-quarried environment surrounding the town where it is set ever present, and the web of community (including chapel) and the Welsh language framing almost everything that happens. But it is also universal in its evocation of the life pressures that seek to shape Pigeon, its main protagonist, whose name is both symbolic (pigeons being birds everyone sees but no one pays attention to) and also fits his character like a protective glove.
The central thread of the book follows Pigeon's coming-of-age journey. His is a life at the margins - the path it follows takes twists and unexpected turns as his edge-of-community, unsettled and unsettling character encounters what chance, and the consequences of his own projected anger, throw at him.
Intertwined is the story of his friendship with the other main character, Iola. As they move through their teenage years - close then apart, she in his wake then suddenly not - the impact of the place, community and the family members around them, and those that are absent, are ever critical.
The physical sense of place is vivid throughout, and although the name of the town is never revealed, clues in geography suggest somewhere very like Bethesda (I'd not be the first person to think this, but perhaps the only one who forgot to ask when he had the chance) - the time it is set in is unclear too - perhaps mid-late eighties. Focussing on lives lived within a definitive community the book has a filmic atmosphere redolent of Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives. It also has a page turner of a plot.
Alys Conran has her roots in North West Wales, and her father, Tony Conran, was a prominent Anglo-Welsh Poet. She was at University in Edinburgh for five years, and then lived for a total of three years in Barcelona - finally moving back here eight years ago. I took my chance to talk to her about where the exceptionally well-drawn characters and the plot that tests them had come from, and how the book related to her own life experience.
It is her own sense of place, culture and 'home' that emerges quickly in conversation, starting when I asked her how she had come back to the area after University:
I was really, really drawn to come home - all the time I was away - partly due to language and culture - but it was a struggle to return. In a strange way I came back through Barcelona - I learnt Catalan whilst I was there and I saw this minority culture at the centre of this cosmopolitan place, and people really respected where I was from there, my Welshness, in a way it wasn't the same elsewhere - it just hadn't been acknowledged. There was a tension when I was away until Barcelona - where they saw my being Welsh very differently - and I realised I wanted to come home.
We talked about Welsh culture at length - trying to isolate what it was about it that drew her back:
It is the emotional tie to a community and sense of being looked after, held by a community in a web of genuine relationships - people don't let go - it still amazes me what persists - at the launch of Pigeon people came from the chapel I went to as a child and school - it was incredible.
When I was away people saw my being Welsh as an easy thing - but it was complicated, and many of the people around me had more interesting lives than people understood, but they were also more difficult and darker - the new book comes in part from wanting to express this.
Thinking about coming back reminds me that I left my Welsh language school as a teenager to go to an English medium sixth form and had to go back, I missed the closeness - it was so alienating.
By the time I went to University I was ready to go, but what I came back to is incredibly valuable.
Pigeon is a ten year off-and-on project - he seems to have nagged away and demanded his story be written - so I had to ask how the written character had come about:
I first wrote about Pigeon as a character immediately after I left University - I had this character but I didn't come back to him for a long time - at the time I had a need to write about some of the people I had known and grown up with that weren't acknowledged.
But it was a long gap until the story developed - which demanded I ask specifically where the impetus came from to finally develop the story into a novel?:
Just as I came back to the Welsh language through the work I did when I moved back, in a way the book was also about coming home for me - in parallel with reengaging with language and culture through work I was also writing my way back to the people around me.
And from the character how did the book start?:
I had this character - and then I started writing the story with an ice cream van winding up through the hills. It just grew from that scene.
The main issue I came to was that I was writing about a quarry town in North Wales and as soon as I added dialogue there was a tension - I felt it would be a lie to have not acknowledge the spoken language of the people I was writing about - so I had to have dialogue in Welsh.
When she talks about the characters you get the impression that the narrative evolved out of her sense of them, and wanting to be true to how she imagined them acting - analogous to how Mike Leigh will improvise a film script with the actors speaking and improvising in character - hence an additional need for authentic language. I asked Alys about this specifically, and she was sure in response:
I start writing, usually, by getting to know a character's voice or point of view and by seeing how they describe the things and people around them, what kinds of things make them react well and badly, what provokes them to be motivated or repulsed. I have to get to know them just as the reader does, by watching them in action. For me, writing stories is usually about learning how to be faithful to a voice or character or point of view. The story will pick up naturally once I have a character who really feels as if they're doing things of their own accord. Redrafting is really about letting it be the characters' story.
There are always places where I can feel that I'm pushing them about too much - at all is too much - or speaking on their behalf too much, and I spend ages trying to spot those places, so I can give the reins back to the characters.
Pigeon, the boy himself, was a really compelling character for me, because he's so much himself. and so much more strong-willed than I am. He's always moving in a particular direction, and I just always knew what he would and wouldn't do, what he would and wouldn't tolerate. He took over straight away. Writing him was very much like being Iola. I just followed him about!
In the book the liberal use of the Welsh language for reported conversations never presents an issue if you are not bilingual - it is always possible to understand what is going on due to the skill with which the exchanges are structured in the text. Likewise narrative arc and prose, especially the use of metaphor, are very well judged throughout; often books by authors who are also poets can tend to be dense or over-elaborate, this is never the case in Pigeon, I wondered why, and Alys was quick to reply:
The voices (of the different characters) held me in, and having to be faithful to them kept me on track.
The book shifts freely between these different 'voices' - character perspectives - and there is humour and tension in the divergent viewpoints. Addressing this led us to talking about Shane Meadows' This is England, and the parallels between Pigeon and that powerful series of films. There are overlaps in plot and the book has the real heft and grit, leavened by humour, of the films, but it was a diversion with enough spoilers to fill an internet forum, so we finished instead discussing the book alone, and the more practical topic of its simultaneous release in Welsh and English versions. The former is an external translation of the latter, despite Alys' native fluency in both languages:
I had a dilemma about doing it myself - it was right not to, and the publisher wanted the translation - I did not want to have to rewrite the book - it would not have been a translation if I had done it myself; I did not think I would have the same voice in Welsh - it would have ended up as an adaptation rather than a translation. It could have been a very challenging book to translate, but Sian Northey has done a great job.
In the book loss of, or alienation from, language is symbolic of being torn from and excluded from a place - and Alys Conran finished the interview, seemingly drawing all we had talked about together, with a very bald and heartfelt statement:
I could not live without the culture and language that surrounds me.
Talking to her and reading her work I cannot be left feeling other than that Alys Conran is a quite brilliant and empathetic writer of both narrative and character, and that she has something important to say.
Pigeon is an extraordinary book about people, place, language and culture. An extraordinary book if you are Welsh, and, if you are not.